Being Black in America: Generational Pain

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Some experts are calling what we’re seeing across the country right now a racial awakening. But for Black Americans, the stories of racism and about race aren’t new.

These stories started decades before Emmett Till in the 1950s. They continued with Rodney King in the 1990s and transformed into viral videos with George Floyd today.

In a FOX13 News Special, FOX13′s Kirstin Garriss talked with four generations of black men for an honest conversation about this generational pain.

They all have stories of racial inequity.

“One when you’re black, you got to be twice as good to get half as far. Second, when you’re black, you’ll be accused of things you didn’t do,” said Roby Williams, President at Black Business Association of Memphis.

These stories have been passed on from generation to generation…

“The message is the same – I need you to come home alive. I need you to survive these encounters first of all,” said Jason Farmer, President, and CEO of Black Lens Productions, LLC.

Racism isn’t limited to the fight for basic human rights of the Civil Rights Movement or the protests for police accountability of today.

Racism is found in the quiet moments of everyday life.

“Some people can never see past skin tone,” said Patrick Hillard, attorney at Burch, Porter & Johnson. “It’s just not going to happen. All four of us have said hello to someone in an elevator and been ignored. All four of us have had someone get off the elevator before we could get on. It’s just not going to happen, but I can’t let it defeat me.”

Inside the National Civil Rights Museum, FOX13 sat down with four black men, from ages 16 to 71, representing four different generations and all dealing with varying levels of racism in their own lives.

“It had his mangled face there and the casket on the other side,” Williams said.

Roby Williams, 71, is a born and bred Memphian, who still vividly remembers the JET magazine article about Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American boy lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of flirting with a white woman.

Williams said he was just 6 years old when he saw that image.

“That night I had a horrible, very vicious nightmare, and my parents came, and they woke me and asks, ‘what’s the matter?’ and my brother, oh he crying, and I said, “I didn’t want to die like that. I didn’t want to break y’all heart.” And my brother said, “oh he’s reacting to that picture he saw of Emmett Till.” “what you doing showing my baby that?” Well, we got past that, but at age 6 that was traumatizing, I mean really, really traumatizing,” he said.

William said that’s the kind of impact a photo had on his life. Now the photos from 1955 have transformed into the viral videos of 2020.

“All the young people today who have seen George Floyd have his life snuffed out in 8 minutes and 46 seconds, how traumatizing is that for these young people? How memorable is that for these young people? How much damage will be done to these young people? That was 1955 for me, and it changed my life forever,” said Willams.

A reality 16-year-old Drake Coakieanos knows all too well.

“I feel like the psychological impact on seeing the video of George Floyd like begging for his life, calling for his mom, when he was like ‘I can’t breathe’ and the officer just clearly not caring,” said Coakieanos, a high school student. “I just feel like the psychological impact on my youth like millions of us had to see that and like millions of us probably watched it over and over again, and it’s like, this is the world we live in? Like why does it have to be this way? And I just don’t understand.”

He said his parents had "the talk" with him just last year.

“It saddens me, because like to know that in certain situations like I’m not going to have the same opportunities as people with different skin colors than I have, and it’s just like I don’t see why we can’t have equal opportunities,” said Coakienaos.

Patrick Hillard, 30, said one of the most traumatic moments in his life came from a standardized test in 5th grade.

“I was asked as every kid is asked to fill in the bubble of race, and up until that point, I was something of a smart-aleck,” Hillard said. “I filled in half the circle of white and half of black because it was told to me early on, I’m not other.”

Hillard's father is black and his mother is white. He said on this particular test, he had to choose a race, and it was a choice that became a class discussion

“I had a Caucasian American tell me, ‘You’re black because you don’t look like me.” I had an African American looking at me like, ‘Nah you’re not as dark as me, so you must be white.’ Someone says there’s the one-drop rule, you’re black and I in 5th grade look at my teacher, like “one-drop rule, what does that mean?' and [teacher] “well ah, it’s something that we tend to follow your father’s ethnicity, what is your father?” “African American” “well I think that’s what you should put,” so I fill in the circle not realizing at that point I just choose that I am an African American man who has a Caucasian American mother, has Caucasian American relatives.

Jason Farmer, 51, was born in Memphis the year after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s assassination at the Lorraine Motel.

“The duality of being Black and in America, there are some certain things that there are some people that despise you because, despite our history in this country and the things that have done to us systematically that we still survive, there are absolutely people who just hate you,” said Farmer.

Farmer said he didn’t have just one talk with his son and daughter about racism. He said it’s a constant discussion in his household, and even in the decisions, they make as a family.

“Our kids come from a solid middle-class family,” said Farmer. “They have not had to experience the struggles that I had growing up as a child, and sometimes there’s a disconnect."

“Us being intentional about sending him to Morehouse was a reminder that as a black man, as a black man of means there are certain opportunities you will be afforded and there are still going to be a certain amount of challenges just because you’re black and we felt like there was no better place to reiterate the message he gets from home than to go to a historically black college like Morehouse.”

These four men are not related, but their stories are the conversations and subtle instances that happen every day to Black Americans.

A generational pain that Williams says won’t end in his lifetime.

“There’s a song I used to sing, ‘I believe we gon be free in my lifetime’ Gil Scott Herron. It ain’t happening. I believe we gone see freedom in our lifetime, I was about 24 when I first began singing that and I’m 71 now and I don’t know how much longer, I got in my tunnel but I don’t see it happening,” said Williams.

But this pain may end one day.

While he doesn’t have the answers, the youngest of the group said he has hope that one day this generational pain will become generational healing.

“I have hope for the future, and I’m confident that this go around this should be the change, this should happen now like none of this nonsense should happen anymore like for me, my friends, my family like all of it should be done,” said Coakieanos.

Part two of Being Black in America: Generational Healing airs Wednesday, July 22 at 9 p.m.